Though the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain is richly enjoyable, it’s best enjoyed in a comfortable chair with the catalogue
Tate Britain, London Until May 25
Amazingly, this is the first exhibition of Aubrey Beardsley’s work at the Tate since 1923, and perhaps the most important survey since the Victoria and Albert Museum mounted a famous, taste-changing exhibition in 1966.
It’s surprising, because Beardsley is one of rather few British artists who made a truly international impact.
It was a short career. Beardsley died at only 25, in 1898, of tuberculosis. He always knew he was going to die young, and his work is utterly focused from the start, and entranced the world.
Aubrey Beardsley pushed at the boundaries of taste from the start, and the illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, like the one with the head of John the Baptist, are still shocking
Look wherever you like in the years after Beardsley died, and you find echoes of his sinuous lines, his great blocks of black or white, his love of flatness and clashing textures.
He ripped up all decorum, and artists as different as Edward Burne-Jones and Picasso responded with enthusiasm.
Beardsley was an intensely modern artist. His work wouldn’t have been possible without very new printing techniques, and was enabled by very rapid changes in the publishing environment.
Much of his impact was contained in the arrival of the magazine The Yellow Book, something that could not have been produced even ten years earlier.
His ‘block construction’ – as in The Toilette Of Salome or The Fat Woman of 1894 – came in very useful when designing posters. The works could be seen from a passing tram and taken in at a glance.
IT’S A FACT
Oscar Wilde once described the dandy-ish Beardsley as having ‘a face like a silver hatchet, and grass-green hair’.
But extraordinary refinement was also offered by the new technologies, and the luxurious illustrations for an 1896 edition of Alexander Pope’s The Rape Of The Lock, for me his greatest work, pile intricate filigree textures one on top of another.
Beardsley pushed at the boundaries of taste from the start, and the illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé are still shocking. The famous one, with a floating heroine holding the head of John the Baptist, pouring aesthetically perfect streams of blood, is the work of a very young man.
His publishers often turned down pieces, or found themselves having to apologise and withdraw pieces when a scurrilous detail became apparent after publication. Later on, he came to the attention of publishers of private obscenities, and produced some illustrations to Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.
They are masterpieces, but couldn’t possibly be shown here.
Although the Tate emphasise that a lot of Beardsley’s original drawings are being exhibited, it’s worth remembering that Beardsley, from his first success in the Morte d’Arthur illustrations, drew for his work to be engraved and printed.
That means that, though the exhibition is richly enjoyable, you have rather a useful second option in the beautifully produced catalogue, edited by the long- term doyen of Beardsley studies, Stephen Calloway.
Beardsley’s works are meant to be enjoyed in a comfortable chair, between bound covers.